It is the rapid development of the computer that changed the face of automation, general manufacturing, and the world in the 1980s. The computer age actually got its start in 1975 when the first personal computer was marketed in the U.S. — The Altair 8800. After that release, the first ready-assembled PC, the Apple II, appeared in the 1977 market. And in 1981 IBM unveiled its first PC.
These revolutionary, 'small' computers could be set up almost anywhere to run virtually any single machine control. Computer Numerical Control (CNC) could be used everywhere — just enter in the codes and machining would begin. Of course coding wasn't exactly a quick or easy task. But new light was shed on that common problem in 1984 when Apple marketed the Macintosh, the first PC with graphical user interface and a mouse. Not only did the power of graphics give innovators the idea for graphic interface on machine controls, but the potential for high-tech graphics would eventually lead the way to computer aided design and manufacturing software.
While computer technology raced steadily ahead, the economy of the 1980s had a few more starts and stops. The economic recession that started in 1979 lasted until 1982. It was also the decade when mergers and globalization changed the way American manufacturers did business. 'Lean manufacturing' became the new buzz word and for companies using machine tools that meant shorter runs, greater flexibility, attention to quality, just-in-time manufacturing and delivery, and help from robotics and other computer-driven technology.
With the rapid growth of computer technology for machine tools, there was an increasing demand, not just for CNC controls, but for user-friendly manufacturing software. Gibbs and Associates had been providing NC programming services in Los Angeles in 1982. But when the Apple Macintosh came out, William Gibbs realized that it would work as the platform for his vision of a CNC programming system simple enough for the every-day programmer. The graphic-user interface of the Apple inspired development of the Gibbs system—a Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) system designed to address common NC programming problems.
As the system was being developed, new iterations were tested at neighboring Sierra Mold. Ron Burdg at Sierra became so excited about the system that he even lent Bill more powerful computers to facilitate development. Once the system was functional, Sierra became Gibbs' first customer.
Like Gibbs, Mark Summers wanted to create software that addressed some of the CNC problems he had experienced. Very few shops had computers or software designed for CNC programming in 1984, so once the manual program was calculated and written, the programmer had to type it into the CNC one character at a time. Summers wanted to change this by loading the CNC program into the controller via a RS232 connection.
He started the company New England CNC Software with his brother Jack in 1984 selling the same product they do now, CAD/CAM software focusing on CAM. The company name was simplified to CNC Software Inc. because the other, "proved to be a mouthful when answering the phone."
The company operated out of Mark's kitchen and was moved to co-founder and President Jack Summer's bedroom shortly after. Jack would roll out of bed in the morning, move three feet to his computer, and program until noon in his bathrobe. Potential dealers and clients that came to visit in the early days still remember the 'homey' atmosphere.
Q-DAS' first customer, Ford Motor Company, would probably be a little reluctant to meet in a bedroom. Q-DAS Inc. sells statistical analysis software, but in 1988 Dr. Edgar Dietrich and Alfred Schulze originally started the company to teach instructional courses on statistics. They developed a supportive program package so that participants of the instruction
course could generate programs themselves. But the idea proved impossible because of the constant growth in technology, and it was not cost efficient to create individual programs. However, a Ford executive responsible for statistical issues attended the first course and was so impressed he asked the company owners to develop a final product based on the program's elements. That was the company's first order.
As software for shop management and controls improved, so did efficiency. Shops incorporating lean manufacturing also demanded machine tools themselves become more efficient and more flexible to meet a variety of specific application needs.
Gene Haas got started making machine tools to meet the efficiency demands of a specific application — indexing parts for machining on a manual milling machine. He created the Haas 5C, a fully automatic, programmable 5C collet indexer, to eliminate manual driving heads and increase production in his own machine shop, Proturn Engineering.
In 1983 Haas Automation Inc. was founded to sell the Haas 5C. That first indexer led to the development of a full line of Haas programmable indexers and rotary tables. The company first served the job-shop level metalworking company and quickly expanded to a national and worldwide market. Haas now also manufacturers a full line of CNC machine tools.
Artran Inc. got its start the same year as Haas and originally produced custom automation equipment for assembly. Founders Art Garrison and Randy Lamp decided to rebuild and redirect the company after the office and plant burned to the ground on Labor Day of 1987.
In March 1988, Artran relocated and concentrated on the needs of the growing poultry industry by manufacturing processing equipment for Tyson Foods. This and other ventures laid the groundwork for subsequent concentration in CNC devices. In 1996 Artran merged with Vector Inc., a PC-based, open-architecture machine tool control manufacturing company. Over the next year Artran increasingly redirected its vision toward the CNC machine tool market. By 1997 the company was completely focused on its own CNC control, the Contour, and its growing line of machine tools.
While Artran worked with poultry, Light Machines sold its first machine to a customer working with pigs. Light Machines was founded in 1982 and makes benchtop machining centers for industrial prototyping, small part production, and educational markets. Its first Benchtop CNC lathe was shipped to ophthalmologist Dr. Ohlendorf who was testing the concept of reshaping corneas with the use of frozen pig eyes. He used Light Machines' small CNC lathe to manufacture a spherical mandrel that would hold the cornea for reshaping on a manual radius turning lathe.
Light Machines got its start when founders Bruce Olsen and Oliver Edwards created the concept of a robotic finger for a medical application. They were unsuccessful in locating a small, inexpensive CNC lathe to prototype the robotic finger, so they produced their own. Light Machines was the first company to market a benchtop CNC machine using a personal computer as its CNC controller. The company was acquired by Davenport Machine in 1996.
As machine tool speed and rigidity improved, cutting tools kept up and even inspired greater innovation. Better tool materials and the development of PVD and CVD coatings applied to tool surfaces enabled higher speeds and feeds with longer tool life.
Diamond coating processes had been used experimentally since the 1940s, but diamond growth rates were too slow. By the mid-1980s, however, a series of Japanese innovations on American and Soviet CVD techniques made the technology feasible and provoked a worldwide boom in further research.
Niagra Cutter Inc. joined in those research efforts and started working with Balzers in the early 1980s to promote innovation and distribution of PVD coating to the U.S. metalworking market. By 1989, the combination was a success with five production locations from Massachusetts to California providing PVD coating service. Today Niagra Cutter continues to operate their own in-house coating center, but Balzers now has ownership of Balzers Tool Coating.
As the tooling industry got more complex, there was more room for new companies like Dorian Tool International to form a niche and jump into the game. Dorian started in 1982 and continues to sell indexable cutting tools, knurling tools, machine tool accessories, and automation products.
On Time Machining Co. (OTM) was another one of those companies finding a niche. It was started in 1989 by Mark Meyer as a special indexable tooling design and manufacturing house. At an end users request, OTM took on the task of drilling materials stacked together, as a way of increasing production output. Stack plate, or laminate drilling was a mission impossible for anyone's indexable drill at the time. During the first demonstration run of OTM's patented Holeshot drill, the machine operator started to drill the material before anyone was aware. The hole was already completed when the senior supervisor told the operator to hit cycle start. The smooth quiet operation caught everyone's attention and got OTM into the stack plate drill market and the entire indexable drill market. In 1992, the company got a patent for its indexable drill.
Mitsubishi Materials USA Corp. also got started in the cutting tool industry of the 1980s. Founded 1984 by Hirakazu Ito, the firm's cutting tool division was started to provide access of high-quality carbide cutting tools to N. America. The business began as Fabmet Corp., and after a ten-year period in 1994 they became eligible to use the name Mitsubishi and became Mitsubishi Materials U.S.A. Corp.
By 1980 flexible, short-run manufacturing had moved from trend to necessity. As the era of single-contract, long-run work, dwindled, machine shops called for more versatility in their tool management, toolholding, and workholding.
Remstar International Inc. started in 1982 selling vertical carousels. Founded by Kardex/Remstar International Group, the company began on a bit of a fluke. A U.S. customer who was doing business in Europe with the parent company wanted to know why the vertical carousel wasn't available in the U.S. Motivated by this, one of Kardex/Remstar International Group's vice presidents, while on vacation, and without discussing it with the board, set up a new corporation named Remstar. Although the board was shocked to learn of this, the vice president was made president of the new U.S.-based company, and RemStar is now the second largest sales market for the group.
In addition to flexibility, efficiency was still an issue in machining. Part and tool changeovers often took up more time than the machining itself, which is why ease-of-use and fast changeovers became so important.
Carr Lane Roemheld Mfg. Co. producer of industrial workholding products, was founded in 1982 in a partnership between the Roemheld family of Roemheld GmbH of Germany and Earl Walker of Carr Lane Mfg. Co. of the U.S.
The company was started to sell two product lines. One was Swiftsure compact workholders and the other was Hilma die and mold clamping systems and die handling equipment.
The new business supplied all of N. America with engineered hydraulic clamping devices under the Swiftsure brand name. The Hilma line came into being when Carr Lane acquired Hilma Corp. of America. Robotic automation also played a huge role in faster, more efficient assembly and manufacturing. A need for robotic welding was what got Motoman Inc., West Carrollton, Ohio, started in 1989. The company was the result of a joint venture between Hobart Brother's Co. and Yaskawa Electric Corp. Both parties initially had trouble agreeing and forming a workable company, and it didn't look like Motoman was ever going to come into its own. But Philip Monnin, who at the time was the Vice President of Hobart Brothers Advanced Systems Group, met with both groups independently and was able to reach an agreeable compromise. This worked out for Monnin since he became President of Motoman after the deal closed.
Motoman was the first robot company to introduce the concept of pre-engineered, standardized arc welding solutions. The ArcWorld family, introduced in 1990, is a full integrated solution featuring Motoman robots and controllers with menu-driven arc welding application software, integrated welding packages, positioners, operator interfaces, and total safety environments.
Efficient manufacturing gave way to higher speed machining. And high-speed machining meant new tools and new ways to hold tools rigidly, but not so rigidly that they would break under the pressure of fast cuts.
Command Tooling Systems was founded in 1982 by Nils Sundquist with three overriding goals: produce the best toolholders, ship standard holders within 24 hours, and keep prices competitive.
Command has introduced a wide variety of innovative toolholder technology including the ThermoLock Shrink Fit toolholders, which are heated to load and unload the cutting tool. Command formed an alliance with Urma AG Werkzeug of Rupperswil, Switzerland in 1988, and has since marketed Urma boring tools throughout N. America.
In the 1980s alternative cutting methods stopped being 'alternatives' and started taking their proper place in the machine tool market. Companies had lots of opportunities to find a niche and succeed. One these firms was Directed Light Inc., founded in 1983 by David Knox, to sell industrial laser components, do laser repair, and operate advanced laser-engraving systems. Directed Light now offers a line of industrial laser products and services including laser replacement parts, laser manufacturing services, and turnkey industrial laser machining systems. The business got started because Knox had accepted a job with a now-defunct company in the laser industry to do market research, database development, and follow-up.
"The assumption was that I would receive a commission or percentage of the market developed and had accepted an absurdly low base salary. After building the database and client interest, it became apparent that my assumptions were wrong. After four months of employment, a friend from college who was about to invest in the stock market, instead offered to invest his money as seed equity for me to start my own business based on the work I had done. On October 31, 1983, I started the company and by March 1, 1984 I also had 40 times that which my minority shareholder had invested. My friend, whom I bought out in 1992, made the best investment of his life."
Precision became a selling point in the 1980s and an essential part of producing a marketable product. Machine accuracies were getting increasingly tighter and measuring devices had to keep up with the demand.
Russel S. Shelton, Frank S. Allia, and Klaus J. Ulbrich launched a company in 1986 due to the growing demand for metrological products and an absence of metrological technology in the U.S. The group made a rugged, repeatable 3D analog scanning probe with fast high-resolution output, and they also created software. Electronic Measuring Devices Inc. now sells the Legend CMM, Sceptre scanning probe and software CMM upgrade packages.
Machine tolerances weren't the only quality concern once the late 1980s came along. QS and ISO standards made companies scramble to prove they were operating safely and in an environmentally ethical way.
Powerway Inc. was founded in 1987 with the merger of DBW Systems and Integrated Technologies. Four founders of the company originally focused on custom solutions and system integration for big companies like Harley-Davidson and Nabisco Foods. Then they introduced their own SPC software. The company now offers consulting services for compliance to ISO 9000, QS9000 and ISO14001, and TESupplement standards and makes several software packages.
Companies founded in the 1980s
Carr Lane Roemheld Mfg. Co. (1982), Command Tooling Systems (1982), Dorian Tool International (1982), Gibbs & Associates (1982), Light Machines (1982), Remstar International (1982), Artran Inc. (1983), Directed Light Inc. (1983), Haas Automation Inc.(1983), ITI (1983), CNC Software Inc. (1984), Mitsubishi Materials U.S.A. Corp. (1984), Electronic Measuring Devices Inc. (1986), ISS (1987), Powerway Inc. (1987), Engineering Geometry Systems (EGS) (1988), On Time Machining Co. (OTM) (1988), Q-DAS Inc. (1988), Motoman Inc. (1989)
Gene Haas Haas Automation Inc.
Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation Inc., started his company in 1983 by designing and manufacturing the first-ever fully automatic, programmable collet indexer. The Haas 5C indexer was an easy-to-use and economical method for increasing productivity on manual mills and machining centers. The Haas 5C was an immediate success and led to the development of a full line of rotary products. Haas also displayed his talent for forward-thinking when he created a competitive, affordably priced VMC in 1988 — a time when foreign competition was overshadowing U.S. production and sales. The VF-1 was an instant success, and Haas delivered and produced the machine in Just-In-Time fashion.